Cord Cutting 5: The last piece of hardware (for now)

The last piece of cord cutting hardware (for now) arrived yesterday: The SiliconDust HDHomeRun Extend. This dual OTA (over-the-air) tuner with integrated transcoding was my approach to resolving the last gap after cutting the cord from DISH Network: being able to stream all my local OTA channels, not just the tiny subset supported by Hulu with Live TV, and secondly, to have DVR capabilities for all of those — especially The CW (Channel 2.1 here in Denver), and my occasional indulgence, Buzzr (which is carried on Channel 3.3 here). So, how’s it working out so far?

The HDHomeRun Extend was pretty much plug and play: Connect the RF coax from your antenna. Connect the power. Connect an Ethernet cable that’s on your network. Done. You can use a web browser to access a very spartan administrative UI, but there’s not much you can do with it other than update your firmware.

Plex’s instructions for configuring the unit were simple and easy to follow. Within minutes, Plex was downloading the program guide to show me what we could view live, or record using Plex’s DVR functionality. Downloading the program guide seemed to suck a lot of resources on my NAS-based Plex server, but once it was done, streaming live to a device in the house worked nicely. I configured a couple of test recordings; Plex did what it was advertised. Not much to it really.

Plex’s DVR interface

I think one of the bigger disappointments with Plex’s DVR and live television capabilities is the interface. From devices, such as an iPhone or the Fire TV Stick, there’s no ability to view the guide in the traditional manner (as shown in the featured image). Instead, you’re presented with a browsing view that prefers to show things as cover art, clustering them in categories, including what’s coming up, what’s on now, shows, news, sports, etc. This just doesn’t align with the conventional mindset of long-time TV consumers like me, who often think of OTA television in terms like, “that show is tonight on Channel 4.” In the age of too much choice (the subject of a future post no doubt), perhaps this show-title-centric view of the universe is the right one.

But the fact that Plex makes that very guide view I’m referring to part of the web interface makes it very curious why it’s completely absent from any other method of using Plex.

Another major flaw in my book with Plex and DVR is that only the admin user can schedule or manage recordings, and there’s no way to delegate that to managed users. But it speaks more to Plex’s exceptionally limited managed user implementation. That implementation is available only to Plex Pass subscribers, and it does, essentially… Well, nothing, other than separate viewing history and status among family members. Every member of the household that I choose should be able to queue-up programming for recording, at a minimum. But alas, there’s no control over user functionality aside from which libraries any given user can access — something clearly very focused on keeping kids out of mom and dad’s collection of adult movies, and little else.

Oh yes, the antenna

I’d be remiss if I didn’t circle back to one other little thing of importance relative to all this: an antenna. Living pretty much line-of-sight from the central location of all the area’s television transmitters makes my antenna needs pretty straightforward. And the built-in-the-past-few-years house we live in was nicely prewired for many things (thanks to my focus on that during construction), so there was a piece of coax running from the attic all the way to the wiring panel in the basement — which is right where the HDHomeRun needed to be placed, adjacent to the Synology NAS, main Ethernet switch, and other tech gear.

I happened to choose this antenna from Amazon. I specifically wanted omnidirectional, and I assumed some powered amplification was probably a good idea. The other main consideration? Price. TV antenna pricing is all over the map, the differences between products seem relatively small, most of the brands are unrecognizable, and I would imagine if something breaks you’re going to be left holding both pieces, as they say. So, the cheaper the better, as long as other buyers have found the product substantively works.

Beyond amplification, and omnidirectIonality, I decided on an outdoor antenna. This is primarily because most of the indoor antennas seem to be designed for mounting behind the television. While my attic is obviously not exposed to the elements, going with an outdoor model gave me what I needed in terms of mounting, design and functionality.

While the antenna I got was intended for mounting to facia or whatever, it was easy to strap to a vertical truss member in the attic. A quick F-connector compression fitting on the end of the coax, and then connecting the powered amplifier inside my media panel in the basement, I routed the signal temporarily to our kitchen television jack, and did a channel scan on that TV. It found more than I expected, the signal clearly strong since the picture was perfect across all of them, and mission declared accomplished.

Indeed, once the HDHomeRun arrived, its scan produced identical results, and we were off to the races. In the few days it’s been here, preferred programming has been configured to record in the Plex DVR, and it’s worked flawlessly so far.

In closing

I think the net-net of this particular change is really grasping just how much television has changed since the big shift to digital. Bear in-mind that during the shift, and since, we were DISH Network subscribers — both before and after DISH began carrying local channels in major markets. I can’t really tell you the last time I watched OTA channels actually over the air. The entire notion of a “digital multicast network” just hasn’t been in my orbit, and yet, here we are, with networks like Grit, Buzzr, Antenna TV, and many others hiding in plain sight as secondary digital OTA channels.

Were we missing anything by not having them? Well, that’s debatable. But as a child of a certain decade, I suppose I’ll admit to the guilty pleasure of the occasional 70s-era rerun of Match Game or an old episode of I Dream of Jeannie. No, it’s not something I want to watch frequently, but it’s fun on occasion.

But the incredible quality of a widescreen, high-definition football game or modern TV comedy or drama or whatever, delivered via digital OTA, is pretty cool for someone who grew-up associating broadcast television with blurry, standard-definition fare shown on an old-fashioned CRT. Sure, we’ve been watching HD on flat panels for years in this house, but that signal wasn’t coming from an OTA source, so forgive my living-under-a-rock reaction of wonder about what technology hath wrought.

And with that, I feel compelled to go enjoy the endless variety of marginal television now available to me after cutting the cord. Between OTA, Hulu with Live TV, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Pluto TV, among others, it seems the classic problem still exists: All these channels, and nothing to watch.  <sigh>